I’ve always appreciated surrealism, as long as it knows its place. Nailed to the wall or stamped into print, it’s fine. It’s like salsa on the burrito. It’s refreshing, an expression of the world sifted through a single quirky human—the way a face is distended in a funhouse mirror or a raindrop.
These thoughts pop up as we’re driving into San Francisco to attend an art exhibit, visit our favorite North Beach coffee house, and see our son. Coming into the city, starting and stopping, changing lanes, tuned to the classical station, I see a billboard. It proclaims, “Wake up your sandwich, America!” This unsettles me.
Well, yes, I know the goal of advertising is to get your attention, and a popular mode today is indirect confusion, inducing you to work out the meaning. This might be a sandwich shop, it might be for alarm clocks, or it might be recruiting for the U.S. Marines. Or none of those. It might simply be telling us to get our shots.
Soon after, we pass a cafe called “Enter the Cafe.” It seems to want us to enter the Enter the Cafe. Soon after, walking, we encounter “Urban Curr”—most likely their Y is mssing, but they might be serving baked dog. At lunch at Caffe Trieste, we’re given little packets of hot sauce; mine says, “When I grow up I want to be a bottle.”
A couple next to us has a large dog; his leash is tangled behind his two front legs. This seems to reflect my psychological condition, but is it a simile, a metaphor, or a personification? Or a plot by the military-industrial complex, the corporate elite, or Antifa to drive us nuts? The dog succeeds in his struggle to untangle, but he’s still firmly leashed.
The news, of course, is a prime purveyor of the surreal, second only to old Roadrunner cartoons. Yet the news rarely touches us directly—it hovers on the flat-screen, much as a Max Ernst painting stays plastered to the wall. When it does come looming at us, screeching like an onrushing taxicab, we’re not likely to be assigning it an artistic genre—we’re just trying to out-screech it.
The surreal in daily life appears like a flash mob, a sudden twister, or a terrorist bomb, though with luck it’s only a billboard or tangled dog. But no one prepares us for it by announcing Magritte or Breton or Dali—it’s just suddenly confronting us on a billboard, interrupting our droning daily brain-wave of “I wonder what’s next?” by screaming, “Me!”